Whose Brecht? Memories for the Eighties

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BRECHT DIED IN 1956, the year of Hungary and of Suez; his writings and his ideas have continued to circulate, to be remembered and used in a variety of ways within Western culture throughout the following two decades. But if we wish these ideas to have a life and a currency for the 1980s we must firstly clarify the ways in which Brecht's timesand therefore his experience and his work-were different from our own; and secondly we must unravel the multi-coloured threads of those readings and re-readings of Brecht that placed his ideas in a new context, that of the unfolding of new theories of culture and cultural production as these developed in the West in the 1970s. Our recovery of Brecht will thus be a complex process of remembering through the recollections of others, and it will entail, at points, a critique of those other memories.
  WHOSE BRECHT MEMORIES FOR THE EIGHTIES A CRITICAL RECOVERY BYSYLVIA HARVEY 45BRECHT DIED IN 1956, the year of Hungary and of Suez; his writ-ings and his ideas have continued to circulate, to be remembered andused in a variety of ways within Western culture throughout the follow-ing two decades. But if we wish these ideas to have a life and a currencyfor the 1980s we must firstly clarify the ways in which Brecht's times-and therefore his experience and his work-were different from our own;and secondly we must unravel the multi-coloured threads of thosereadings and re-readings of Brecht that placed his ideas in a new context,that of  the  unfolding of new theories of culture and cultural productionas these developed in the West in the 1970s. Our recovery of Brecht willthus be a complex process of remembering through the recollections ofothers, and it will entail, at points, a critique of those other memories. Brecht Then and Now Our starting point must be the recognition that Brecht in aiming 'toapply to the theatre the saying that one should not only interpret butchange the world' worked to produce cultural forms, to unleash energiesand criticisms, visions and stories, appropriate for his own times, andthat times have changed. His experience crosses the two peaks of anenthusiastic commitment to the struggles of   GermarMeft building foritself mass political support in the late 1920s and early '30s, and thequieter, rather, more subdued and contradictory but nonetheless prin-cipled commitment to the communist government of East Germany in   a t   U ni  v  er  s i   t   y  of  L  e e d  s  on J  un e2  0  ,2  0 1 1  s  c r  e en. ox f   or  d  j   o ur n al   s . or  gD  ownl   o a d  e d f  r  om   46 1  The experience ofthese times isexpressed vividly inmany of Brecht'spoems; see, forexample, 'ToThose Born Later',Bertolt Brecht, Poems,  Part Two1929-38, and 'BadTimes',  Poems, Part Three1938-56, edjWillett and RMannheim,London, EyreMethuen 1976 2  'A Short Organumfor the Theatre', Brecht on Theatre, ed J Willett,London, EyreMethuen, 1978, p 185.  For Brecht'sdiscussion ofpleasure inlearning, see'Theatre forPleasure or Theatrefor Instruction', Brecht on Theatre, pp 69-76. 3  See LouisAlthusser, 'On theMaterialistDialectic',  ForMarx,  translated byBen Brewster,London, AllenLane, 1969. Thedebate aboutknowledge andscientific methodhas been developedby E P Thompsonin  The Poverty of Theory  and OtherEssays,  London,Merlin Press, 1978and by PerryAnderson in Arguments withinEnglish Marxism, London, New LeftBooks, 1980. the 1950s. These peaks are separated by the difficult years, the 'badtimes' of fascism and exile from 1933 to 1948.' Our own times have, inBritain, their own particular difficulties: a crisis of profitability, de-industrialisation, mass unemployment and a sustained attempt atdismantling both the ideology and the structure of the Welfare State.These factors provide a distinctive framework for both our criticism andour cultural production, and we may learn something from Brecht'sattempt at constructing a new culture appropriate for his times only if weare clear about some of the changes of approach and emphasis, togetherwith some of the new social phenomena, that characterise the post-warperiod.Firstly, Brecht's commitment to socialism and his search for  a  culturalequivalent to that commitment is difficult to recover today. For our agehas not only inherited the language and some of the ideologies of theCold War, but has also accumulated difficult and contradictory know-ledge about the actual historical practices of socialism. The choicebetween 'socialism or barbarism', a choice that seemed clear to so manyin the '30s, became less clear in the post-war period. Moreover, thediscourse of the western mass media (paralleled by mistakes and diver-sions in the working class movement itself) has imparted to the vocabu-lary of'communism' and 'class struggle' such negative connotations thatBrecht would have been among the first to hunt for new ways of speak-ing old truths. We have an additional, historically accrued disadvantagethat the dominant and carefully constructed image of socialism is ofsomething (and it is seen as  a  'thing') dreary, drab, repressive and boring.Our difficult responsibility is not simply to replace this image withanother, but to embark on those new practices that might give force andsubstance to the representation of  a  lived experience of communalismand creativity in our cinema, theatre, poetry.Secondly, Brecht's writings, like those of many of his contemporaries,are marked by a strong belief in the value of science. It is a belief thatexpresses a strong pride and pleasure in the possibilities for humanadvancement opened up by the new  age  of science. In the 'Short Organumfor the Theatre' (1948) he equates the scientific attitude with a pleasur-able and change-oriented form of learning; this attitude looks at the'how' and the 'why' of reality, and asks how things could be different; itproposes the transformation of nature and social reality: The attitude is a critical one. Faced with a river, it consists in regulating theriver; faced with a fruit tree, in spraying the fruit tree faced with society,in turning society upside down. 2 The emphasis here on change and on practice separates this cluster ofideas from later definitions of the category of science (considered as amode of knowing or-a 'theoretical practice') associated in the '60s withthe work of Louis Althusser. 3  For Brecht, science stands both for thepossibility of exact and certain knowledge of the natural and social worldand for the  mastery  of nature and human history. In this latter respect it   a t   U ni  v  er  s i   t   y  of  L  e e d  s  on J  un e2  0  ,2  0 1 1  s  c r  e en. ox f   or  d  j   o ur n al   s . or  gD  ownl   o a d  e d f  r  om   is linked to that sort of optimistic and teleological marxism of the 'iron 47laws of history' that is rather more characteristic of the 1930s than of ourown time.Thirdly, we can measure the distance between Brecht's world and ourown by looking at the ways in which his ideas about cultural productionwere determined by the circumstances in which he found  himself.  In thelate '20s his support for and identification with the German CommunistParty, a party receiving mass support and leading one of the most highlyorganised workers' movements in Europe, offered him a place withinand the possibility of working for a popular left-wing culture. His  wasnot, at that time, the position of those in the post-war West who were tobe accused of cultural isolationism, of elitism or vanguardism, of'preaching to the converted' (a phrase that almost always assumes the'converted' are a fringe minority). It is the majority, working people, thepoor and the oppressed, who are the imagined interlocutors of, forexample, his poems. Thus he writes: Those who eat their fill speak to the hungryOf wonderful times to come. 'Those Who Take the Meat from the Table' General, your bomber is powerful...But it has one defect:It needs a mechanic. 'General Your Tank is a Powerful Vehicle' 4 Today the absence of a mass left movement is matched by the dominanceof systems of mass communication, and by the cultural effects, for dissi-dent groups, of fragmentation, ghettoisation, marginalisation.This process of cultural fragmentation or ghettoisation can, however,be considered in its positive aspect. For one of the most distinctivephenomena of the last twenty years has been the emergence of new socialmovements based upon the recognition of various forms of social oppres-sion not solely explicable in terms of the categories of'class' and 'exploit-ation'; among these can be counted the movements for black liberation,for women's and gay liberation, as well as the many anti-imperialistnational liberation movements. A crucial question for cultural theory inthe 1980s will be the extent to which these vigorous but often rigorouslyself-enclosed cultures exist as an  alternative  or in  opposition  to main-stream and dominant culture. To what extent might these dominatedcultures, and those who produce the means of expression for them, trans-form the social totality?If this has seemed like a digression, circling at a great distance aroundthe question of'Brecht and film theory', it has been a digression designedto establish the conditions from which we make our raid upon th.e past,  ~~^~~~^~~ and the circumstances in which we embark upon our purposeful reading  Poems,  Pan Two,of Brecht. The following section will briefly examine the ways in which 295 ' 'those forms of film theory committed to the general principle of 'polit- ^__^^__^^_   a t   U ni  v  er  s i   t   y  of  L  e e d  s  on J  un e2  0  ,2  0 1 1  s  c r  e en. ox f   or  d  j   o ur n al   s . or  gD  ownl   o a d  e d f  r  om   48 5  Peter Wollen,'Manet  — Modernism andAvant-garde', Screen,  Summer1980, vol21.no 2,p 25. See also T JClark,'Preliminaries to aPossible Treatmentof  Olympia  in 1865',  Screen, Spring 1980, vol 21,  no l,pp  18-41, and T J Clark, 'ANote in Reply toPeter Wollen', Screen,  Autumn1980, vol  21,  no 3,pp 97-100. 6  ibid., p 23. ical modernism' have taken up and transformed certain Brechtianformulations. It should be added that the purpose of this process is not touncover the 'real Brecht', to establish the 'authorised version', but ratherto investigate and of course to comment upon some of the 'variants'. The Politics of Form : Film Theory in the 1970s Beneath the imprecise, often confusing slogan of the 'politics of form'many of the central and recurrent debates of film theory in the '70sstruggled to establish a conceptual framework that might link the analy-sis of the formal properties of the film text to an understanding of itssocial mode of existence. This long dream of uniting or relating semioticand ideological analysis, together with a desire on the part of some prac-titioners to combine a radical aesthetic practice with radical socialeffects, has resolved  itself,  or condensed itself into the term 'politicalmodernism'. This 'political modernism' (whether the term is used assuch or merely implied in a mode of argument) has served as the arena infilm theory within which the aesthetic quarrel of the century, thatbetween 'Realism' and 'Modernism', has unfolded. For a sense of thisdebate's continuity as a painfully live issue, we need only refer to therecent exchange in this journal between Peter Wollen and TimothyClark. Wollen argues that Clark's article on Manet's painting  Olympia amounts to an attempt to undermine the whole paradigm of modernism and, specific-ally, the aesthetics of its radical avant-garde sector. This surely is to turnone's back on the whole history of political art in this century... 5 In the course of the same argument Brecht's work is invoked-the oftenspoken name of the great fellow traveller, whether the talk has been ofGodard or Straub, Sirk or Oshima, Eisenstein or British IndependentCinema—and a useful, brief summary is offered of what is taken to beBrecht's position: Brecht described many times why a traditional form of realism was inade-quate as the sole or privileged form of oppositional art it tended to belocal rather than global... it favoured the actual rather than the possibleand the observable rather than the unobservable. It was descriptive ratherthan explanatory. It effaced contradiction. 6 While the concept of 'realism' clearly requires closer investigation,two comments might be useful at this stage. Firstly, there is, here, atendency to equate political art with modernism. In addition, politicalart' seems to include the unspoken term 'European' or 'Western'; itmight not be applicable to developments in Cuba or Chile or Senegal.While we certainly cannot make a sucTden and easy 'escape' by lookingelsewhere, we are the products of our particular cultural history but notits prisoners; we can learn from and draw upon other traditions, otherhistories. This is the value of the 'knight's move'-Viktor Shklovsky's   a t   U ni  v  er  s i   t   y  of  L  e e d  s  on J  un e2  0  ,2  0 1 1  s  c r  e en. ox f   or  d  j   o ur n al   s . or  gD  ownl   o a d  e d f  r  om 
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